Opinion by Amy-Jill Levine, special to CNN
(CNN) – It was once said, “religion is designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
Jesus’ parables – short stories with moral lessons – were likewise designed to afflict, to draw us in but leave us uncomfortable.
These teachings can be read as being about divine love and salvation, sure. But, their first listeners – first century Jews in Galilee and Judea – heard much more challenging messages.
Only when we hear the parables as Jesus’ own audience did can we fully experience their power and find ourselves surprised and challenged today.
Here are four examples of Jesus’ teachings that everybody gets wrong:
Opinion by Matthew Paul Turner, special to CNN
(CNN) – The majority of America’s churches teach that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. But considering our country’s near-400-year history, can we honestly say that our concepts and perceptions about God haven’t evolved?
Is our contemporary American God the same as in 1629, when the Puritans began organizing a mass exodus toward their “Promised Land”?
Is our modern God the same as in 1801, when Christians at a revival in Kentucky became so filled up with God’s spirit that they got down on all-fours and barked and howled like wild dogs?
More recently, is our God the same as in 2000, when born again George W. Bush won (sort of) the presidential election by rallying America’s then thriving evangelical electorate with a Jesus-tinged GOP rhetoric he called “compassionate conservatism”?
The truth is, no. God is likely not exactly the same as God was yesterday, not here in the United States, not among America’s faithful. Here, God changes.
Our making God into our own image isn’t a new trend. We’ve been changing God since Anglo Saxons first stepped foot onto these shores. Here are five examples.
Opinion by Craig Detweiler, Special to CNN
(CNN) – It is understandable why Breanna Mitchell’s sunny tweet from Auschwitz as “PrincessBMM” would spark a viral outcry.
A tour of a concentration camp, where so many Jews lost their lives, may move us to take photos or post responses – but few would include smiles, or selfies.
But Mitchell is not the first teenager to generate Internet outrage by her response to the Holocaust.
When Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House last year, he wrote in the museum guest book, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a Belieber.”
While many have ripped into Mitchell and Bieber for their insensitivity, I don’t think they intended to be disrespectful to the dead.
Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices (mobiquity!), adolescent mistakes and hard lessons that used to be learned in private can quickly devolve into public drubbings.
This is what happens when new technologies clash with ancient understandings of the sacred. The problem is so pervasive that a Tumblr site, “Selfies at Serious Places” is dedicated to such faux pas.
We have very few spaces that our culture considers sacred, where an association with the divine results in a feeling of awe or reverence. Death may seem especially abstract to young people who haven’t been shown how to grieve, mourn or respect the dead.
So how might we help the emerging generation to develop a digital decorum that accounts for sacred spaces? Can we incorporate electronic ethics into religious instruction?
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - A team of scientists has concluded that a controversial scrap of papyrus that purportedly quotes Jesus referring to "my wife," is not a fake, according to the Harvard Theological Review.
"A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, 'Jesus said to them, my wife' is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE," Harvard Divinity School said in a statement.
Scientists tested the papyrus and the carbon ink, and analyzed the handwriting and grammar, according to Harvard.
Radiocarbon tests conducted at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced an origination date for the papyrus of 659-859 CE, according to Harvard. MIT also studied the chemical composition of the papyrus and patterns of oxidation.
Other scholars studied the carbon character of the ink and found that it matched samples of papyri from the first to eight century CE, according to Harvard.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - Heaven and Earth are said to meet atop Jerusalem’s sacred mounts, but the city’s stony streets have seen more than their share of violence.
King David subdued the Jebusites, the city's Canaanite founders. The Babylonians and Romans routed the Jews. Muslims booted the Byzantines. Christian Crusaders mauled Muslims and were, in turn, tossed out by the Tartars.
The Ottomans followed, then Britain, then Jordan, before finally, in 1967, the city came nearly full circle when Israel annexed East Jerusalem. That sparked another cycle of violence, this time between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world,” says Anthony Bourdain, who visits Jerusalem in the season premiere of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” which debuts Sunday night on CNN.
“And there’s no hope - none - of ever talking about it without pissing someone off.”
Opinion by Jeffrey Weiss, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Pope Francis surprised Israeli and Palestinian leaders last month when he invited them to a special prayer ceremony at the Vatican this Sunday - not least because religion has often been the source, not the salve, of the region's conflicts.
Still, Pope Francis offered his "home" - the Vatican - as the perfect place to plea for some divine assistance, and Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dutifully agreed to attend.
"The Pope has placed it in this perspective: Prayer is like a force for peace,” Vatican Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin told Vatican Radio.
"We hope that there, where human efforts have so far failed, the Lord offers to all the wisdom and fortitude to carry out a real peace plan."
But Sunday's special ceremony at the Vatican raises an interesting question: When Francis, Peres and Abbas bow their heads in prayer, will they be talking to the same God?
After all, Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their faiths back to a fellow named Abraham, whom they all claim was chosen for special treatment by the Almighty.
By John Blake, CNN
“God, help me!”
Eben Alexander shouted and flailed as hospital orderlies tried to hold him in place. But no one could stop his violent seizures, and the 54-year-old neurosurgeon went limp as his horrified wife looked on.
That moment could have been the end. But Alexander says it was just the beginning. He found himself soaring toward a brilliant white light tinged with gold into “the strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.”
Alexander calls that world heaven, and he describes his journey in “Proof of Heaven,” which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 27 weeks. Alexander says he used to be an indifferent churchgoer who ignored stories about the afterlife. But now he knows there’s truth to those stories, and there’s no reason to fear death.
“Not one bit,” he said. “It’s a transition; it’s not the end of anything. We will be with our loved ones again.”
Heaven used to be a mystery, a place glimpsed only by mystics and prophets. But popular culture is filled with firsthand accounts from all sorts of people who claim that they, too, have proofs of heaven after undergoing near-death experiences.
Yet the popularity of these stories raises another question: Why doesn’t the church talk about heaven anymore? FULL POST
(CNN) – An angry outburst at a mosque. The posting of a suspicious YouTube video. A friendship with a shadowy imam.
Those were just some of the signs that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, accused of masterminding the Boston Marathon bombings, had adopted a virulent strain of Islam that led to the deaths of four people and injury of more than 260.
But how else can you tell that someone’s religious beliefs have crossed the line? The answer may not be as simple you think, according to scholars who study all brands of religious extremism. The line between good and evil religion is thin, they say, and it’s easy to make self-righteous assumptions.
“When it’s something we like, we say it’s commitment to an idea; when it’s something we don’t like, we say it’s blind obedience,” said Douglas Jacobsen, a theology professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
CNN examines the tumultuous early years of Christianity in a special narrated by Liam Neeson. Watch “After Jesus: The First Christians,” Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
(CNN) – She walked into the Roman arena where the wild beasts awaited her. She trembled not from fear but from joy.
Her name was Vibia Perpetua. She was just 22, a young mother singing hymns as the crowd jeered and a lion, leopard and wild cow encircled her.
One of the beasts attacked, hurling her to the ground. She covered an exposed thigh with her bloody robe to preserve her modesty and groped in the dust for her hair pin so she could fix her disheveled hair.
And when a Roman executioner approached Perpetua with a sword, her last words before collapsing were aimed at her Christian companions: “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another and do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you.”
Millions of Christians worldwide will celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on this Easter Sunday. But the story of how the church rose to prominence after Jesus’ death is being turned upside down.
Papal historian Christopher Bellitto discusses Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.